Eat what you grow, grow what you eat

Interview with Ernest Gibba and Marguerite Kahrl

In P4R we use the term ‘refugee’ interchangeably with forced migrants, stateless or internally displaced peoples (IDPs), asylum seekers and refugees. While some of these labels are used to define political and legal status of mobilised populations, it is our intention to embrace these situations under the umbrella of P4R.

Ernest you were one of the facilitators on the Erasmus + Training Course, Social Practitioners, which I participated in this Spring held at La Bolina nearby Granada, Spain. The course was part of an initiative and network ECOntACT with Permaculture for Refugees (P4R) collaborating as a partner, bringing course participants. 

A focus of the course was on the healing of social systems through regenerative and restorative strategies. Throughout the training we addressed mental models, habits and how our ways of seeing influence what we are doing in our work to address complex needs of communities and people.

I was particularly taken with your story as you have direct experience with many things P4R is interested and involved in – migrants, permaculture, restoration, and the ecovillage model. I am happy to have the opportunity to interview you for the P4R newsletter.

Please can you introduce yourself:

My name is Ernest Gibba from The Gambia but residing in Spain now for the past four and half years, and during all these years I have been working on permaculture, agroecology and regeneration projects.

From your experience, what aspects of permaculture do you find are particularly important or valuable for migrants? Can you give an example of what difference this has made in the lives of migrants?

Some people may be asking why permaculture? First of all, I am from a family that relies on agriculture to feed the family and also provide our education. Growing up as a child I have learned how to grow the food we eat especially rice and vegetables and from these vegetables my education was paid. While permaculture was a new word for me, when I was young most people in the community were practicing these types of things. For fertilizer they were using natural fertilizer like cow dung and dry leaves but at a certain point they stopped using this. 

At that point a lot shifted in the ways we grow food, people started using fertilizer and chemicals in their gardens and farms and stopped using the old ways of growing food. Over time with school and technology things started changing. Our people began copying a life that did not suit them. When the government started importing NPT fertilizers from China, most women were buying this and applying it to their garden. During the first years, things went well but over time it stopped working well and people had to buy more to apply to their plants, but still the quality continued to go down. The women were not considering the amount of money they were spending on fertilizers, while at the same time the price of the food they were selling was very low and they did not get much money. This was a very big loss. 

This went on for decades until 2014 when a young vibrant youth by the name Gilbert was sent to Germany to do a permaculture course. A year after his return our community received funding for 24 people to do the first permaculture and ecovillage design education and I was selected from the people that applied. Having someone to come from far away to tell us about permaculture (this was not something new but gave us an awareness of what we had left behind) allowed us to farm and garden with less money, to grow healthy food, and have a healthy lifestyle with easy techniques. You can gain a lot out of it. Reading, practicing, learning about, I know that it is the system we should continue with. It is what is going to save us.

You were involved in an Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) project in The Gambia. What were the important takeaways or learnings for you?

This was the turning point in my life. Permaculture and sustainability became part of my life. We started going out to women’s community gardens to share the knowledge we learned from the course and making compost for them for free. We started protecting our environment and regenerating some part of the community that has been destroyed.

The growing part of permaculture and social way of being are the most important and valuable for migrants. There are lots of ways of growing food we can learn from permaculture to share with our people back home and there are lots of opportunities we can make out of that. Our people are going astray and we are now relying on unhealthy food imported to our country to feed our family when we can grow it ourselves. Another important thing to talk about is our social way of life, most of us have grown up in a community where the core values are sharing and supporting. We work together as people of the community rather than individuals and this is something we should not allow to fade away.

The EDE made me understand how important community living is and how the environment around me I took for granted was so important, it makes me value my culture and embrace the diversity of different cultures in the community.

Following your experience at the Kartong Ecovillage you set up a community garden in your hometown – could you describe this? 

In the beginning it was very difficult to encourage youth in the ecovillage movement in the community because they were not seeing the importance of it, and secondly, it’s voluntary so no one is being paid for their services. But when we started forming small projects in the community that people could see and that they started improving the life of other people, more people started volunteering for projects like Turtle Sos The Gambia, KEN women, Kartong permaculture and so on.

We set up a demonstration garden for the people of the community to see and learn. Most people who are gardening in The Gambia are women and most of them don’t have the opportunity to go to school. If you want to teach them theories without practical examples for them to see, then your efforts will go in vain. Because of this we created this small place for people to come, see, learn and then practice in their own garden. In the demonstration garden we used chemical fertilizer on one side and on the other side compost from free materials such as cow dung, fish scales which are rampant everywhere. In this way they could see the yield and cost differential.

Please describe how the application of a permaculture design approach has allowed the construction of community ties at La Bolina?

In La Bolina we have learned from permaculture design or principles or ethics to create more community ties for example in permaculture there is nothing like failure, but a learning moment and the project has used this principle to grow. Our diversity in the project has helped us to learn from each other and create more ties between people. And no matter what happens we come back to work as a team.

The Open Days here in La Bolina are a way to share what we are doing with lots of people in one day. Also, on market days where we sell organic vegetables in the community. In the village where I am living, we have a piece of land where we planted a beautiful garden and fixed up a house which had been empty for 10 years. Slowly people started coming around, like local farmers, who were happy the place is coming back to life and curious about us and what we are doing. They want to learn more about our techniques in permaculture and agroecology.

Regarding community ties, the culture here is completely different. I was born in a community and lived in it. I had no idea living in a community here could be so hard. Everyone has different ideas. In my experience, for things to go forward, sometimes you must lie down and have people step over you. We listened to the old people who have knowledge, experience, knowledge – with that it is easy to come up with something good. Here I see the elder people living alone. All the young people want to live in the city. The old people can tell you how they were living before in community, people helping each other. Now people are isolated in their own place, they don’t care about what is happening next door, they want their privacy.  

How has your knowledge from your experience in The Gambia been used, shared, and considered in the courses and workshops you teach?

There are many cultural differences between where I come from and Europe. I have seen that people are always interested in hearing and learning from my experience and knowledge from The Gambia and this has motivated me to share more, and I have seen people put it into use. Every course I did was a different experience and always something new to learn from the participants and this is helping me grow as a person and a facilitator. The younger generation is running away from farming – in Africa they see that most of the poorest people are farmers. They are seduced by the consumer culture and have moved away from the land. The permaculture courses and demonstration gardens are a great way for them to see techniques and to motivate them. I see alot of opportunities now if you share techniques with young people. You will spend a lot of money buying fertilizers. But if you come up with easy techniques which can be applied, they will be motivated to share this knowledge.

You have taken the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) and teacher training. Are there some ways that you might adapt in the PDC/teacher training courses to make them more relevant to migrants?

There are factors to consider when designing permaculture for migrants and language is one of them, simple words for them to understand and practical to give them a better understanding of what you are saying. Design the course in a way that whatever they learn is applicable in their country. Permaculture is a useful thing for migrants to learn and take back the practical experience to their country. 

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your learnings and experiences!

By Marguerite Kahrl, Co-founder and advisor Permaculture for Refugees

(left) Marguerite Kahrl and (right) Ernest Gibba

*NPK refers to the three elements found in these commercial fertilizer mixtures—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The three letters refer to the chemical symbols for these elements:

N for nitrogen
P for phosphorus
K for potassium

Please note: In P4R we use the term ‘refugee’ interchangeably with forced migrants, stateless or internally displaced peoples (IDPs), asylum seekers and refugees. While some of these labels are used to define political and legal status of mobilised populations, it is our intention to embrace these situations under the umbrella of P4R.

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